More than 300 people gathered on the front lawn of the Prince Rupert Courthouse on May 30 in honour of the 215 residential school children who never made it home, in a ceremony organized jointly by Lax Kw’alaams members and Amago’ot Gyetm Maaxii.
The remains of the children were found on the grounds of the former Kamploos Indian Residential school the weekend of May 23. The discovery of the remains has drawn outrage and sadness in many throughout the province.
The two-hour ceremony on Sunday afternoon in Prince Rupert was organized on two days’ notice. It opened with a moment of silence and saw First Nations Elders offer prayers, along with traditional drumming, singing, and sage blessings to commemorate the lost lives of the children.
Youth circled the war monument on McBride, placing shoes along the steps with elders surrounding them.
Residential school survivors shared their stories of being taken from their homes and explained the years of abuse at the hands of those supposed to be their caregivers, bringing tears to the eyes of many in attendance.
Matriarch Louisa Smith told of her years in the residential school system and of suffering from tuberculosis. She said she was away from her family for ten years.
“Today I wear black, not only for the death of my brother but for the finding of these 215 children. I visualize the little ones who didn’t make it home. I visualize all the students trying to fend for themselves,” Smith said. “They were told not to lie, not to talk back. Without warning, oftentimes, whatever was held in their [school staff] hand, whether it’s a ruler or a stick or a black leather strap without warning you would feel that on parts of your body.”
“We were taught about apologies, compassion, and forgiving. Yet when we got out of church and went back into the schools — if there is a hell, we were there,” Smith said.
“I ask people of all races to take the journey inside. Take the journey inside themselves and look for places where we need to clean house — the prejudices people feel for another race,” Smith said. “There is hate and racism. I don’t want that in my life or in my being.
“I look at everyone and my ancestors as sacred beings, and we need to acknowledge each other as such,” Smith said.
As well, John Lincoln told of how the residential school system has multigenerational effects. Onlookers heard how his parents were survivors of the residential school system, however, with violence in his childhood his 15 siblings were taken and all separated into foster care. He said as a child he grew up with his one wish being to have a family. Anger and repeated patterns ran through his life he said which mirrored the behaviour he saw, then carried through to his own relationships. Lincoln told the attendees that it was only after five anger management courses, and now eight years sober he has learned to live with the multi-generational effects of the residential school system on him.
Local Nisga’a Elder Ron Nyce shared his experience of five years in an Alberta residential school where his culture and First Nations identity were stolen from him and other children at the school. He spoke of his subsequent teaching of culture and language to the younger generation in the Prince Rupert region.
“Learn your language and be proud of who you are,” Nyce said.
K-J Millar | Journalist
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